WD Conference–Revision: Learn How to Love It

Sunday at the Writer’s Digest Conference, James Scott Bell gave another riveting presentation on learning how to love revision.

His argument is that if you know what you are doing and have enough tools to do it, revision can be fun and creative. After hearing him speak, I’m a believer. I purchased his book on Revision and Self-Editing.

He takes a systematic approach to revision (in a similar way to his approach to plotting). Much like war, strategy is an important part of winning the battle with revisions.

He has three rules:

  1. Write
  2. Finish the novel
  3. Learn the craft

He believes that the act of completing the novel teaches the writer so much. But then the writer must revise in order to learn how to revise.

His rules are:

  • Write hot and revise cool (write like a Hawaiian shirt and edit like skinny jeans)
    • The first draft should be passionate and dance out of your mind
    • So let it out. Push the limits, knowing you can scale back later
    • You can revise as you write, but try to keep it to a quick edit of the past day’s work and then moving forward to the next day’s writing
    • At the 20K word count, step back and ask:
      • Is the main character sympathetic or possesses connectability?
      • Are the stakes high enough?
      • Is the confrontation element fully justified?
  • Take a break from the manuscript. At least 2 weeks-1 month.
  • And comes back as a reader. Pretend to pick it up for the first time. Do a first read through with minimal notes. Read like a reader NOT an editor. Get through the entire novel in 1-4 sessions, making minimal marks in the manuscript as you read.
    • Checkmarks indicate that the story is dragging
    • Parentheses mean the sentence doesn’t work
    • Circles in margin for where material needs to be added
    • Question marks to denote confusion
  • When finished reading, asks if the story makes sense.
    • Not just in terms of the plot threads tying up, but do the characters behave as people should act?
    • Look at scenes from the viewpoint of each character and have them make the best move for himself because each character has his own agenda
    • Any coincidences that help out the plot are removed. Readers want a character to solve a problem with her own ingenuity
    • Examine if the stakes are high enough. Looking for death of some sort (physical, professional, emotional). Examine the protagonist’s inner tension in scenes
    • Does your main character jump off the page. Readers want characters they haven’t seen before in subtle ways. Readers want a protagonist they can follow through death struggle. Someone they can worry about

In the drafting and editing process, create off-page scenes, playing out how a character will react to certain things. This allows you to get to know your characters and understand their inner workings. To find their emotional depths.

Then outline book with a scene breakdown of what is written to use during editing. Revise the outline multiple times to account for any changes that should be made to the draft after your reading. This outline will be the basis of the second draft.

Work on the outline with the goal of making the story breathe and move. To create an emotional experience for the reader.

Dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. It is a compression and an extension of action. Keep in mind the agenda of the speaker.

Characters with different agendas = constant friction

Then move onto the polishing

  • Scenes openings should be reviewed. Depending on pacing, you may open with action, dialogue, or setting scene
    • Make sure opening scene has a hook
  • Look at chapter endings–usually a paragraph can be cut to “snip at the tail” and give the story forward momentum
  • Compress dialogue

Thank you Mr. Bell for another stellar craft lecture.

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2 Responses to WD Conference–Revision: Learn How to Love It

  1. berry says:

    I think you get your money’s worth at these conferences. Writing is so complex who would think that. It’s details and more you need to pay attention to. Wow. Too hard for me. Kudos to you and all aspiring writers.

    • Like any industry, publishing is a tough one to navigate. I think because we all learn how to string letters together in grammar school, we expect writing to be easy. But it’s like any other profession. It’s hard work and dedication. Lots of people can do basic math, but they can’t just become a statistician or an engineer.

What do you think?